Wednesday, August 08, 2007

With outstretched hand

At the gas station this evening, I was approached by a young man who asked me, very politely, if I had a dollar to help him get some gas. His plaid shirt and khaki shorts were clean, but his car, parked at another pump, looked nearly as old as he was.

"Hold on and I'll check," I said.

I screwed the gas cap back on, replaced the nozzle, and went to look in my wallet. It was empty -- I'm a debit-card junkie and rarely carry much cash -- so I scrounged up a few quarters from the ashtray and handed them to him with an apology for not being able to give him more.

"That's okay," he said with a smile. "Thanks so much, you're a doll."

"Mom, what were you doing?" G asked as I got back into the car.

"Giving that man my quarters so he could buy gas," I said.

"But I need those quarters in case I see a gumball machine!" said G.

"Well, he probably needs them more," I said, and started the car. "What's more important? Buying gum or helping someone?"

"Helping someone," said G in tones of deep resignation.

I know half of you are most likely thinking You got played, and maybe I did. But my policy on panhandlers is this: If someone asks me for a dollar, and I have it, I give it to them. I've never gone out panhandling myself, but I've been poor enough for it to seem like a real option. I've lived in places where it wasn't unusual for embarrassed-looking neighbors to knock on the door and ask if I could spare a can of corn or beans, anything so they could give their kids some dinner. I know that it is possible to be a totally honest person, with or without a job, and still be so broke that a dollar can make a huge difference in your life. And even if nine out of ten people who ask me for that dollar are scam artists, I'd rather give it to all of them than risk missing the one who really needs it. If that makes me a soft touch or an easy mark, so be it. (By the way, had I ever doubted this approach, the incident of the amazing reappearing $10 bill would have changed my mind.)

For G, who has never known an instant's deprivation and is still young enough to be almost totally self-centered, it's difficult to understand why Mom would give perfectly good gum-machine quarters away to some guy at a gas station. I hope she reaches that point someday ... although preferably without the hard life experience that got me here. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, least of all the person I love most in the world.


writermeeg said...

V, you are a class act. And someday G will do the same, and thank her dear, amazing mother.

Rebecca said...

Hey, just found your blog, read your 'magic $10 bill' story, and wanted to tell you of a very similar experience in my life: After some major hesitation, my family gave a $100 bill (which we couldn't really afford to lose) to our church's collection for the big tsunami a few years ago. Later that night, my husband found another Benjamin Franklin in his wallet, which had definitely *not* been there earlier. It was an amazing, humbling experience, one that we'll never, ever forget. God works in mysterious ways!

Diana said...

Even if you are wrong and every one of those people is playing you (which, I agree, is not likely), the lesson you are teaching G is worth way more than the dollar. Good for you!

Humincat said...

I always say "Sorry, no cash" out of fear and then the minute I'm out of their reach, I feel like a complete loser for not helping. My hubbs on the other hand has no problem and usually gives WAY more (like $10 or $20 bucks!!!) then asked for. I hope my girls see that in him, and get humbled like I do. On my behalf, I have been VERY tempted to pick up people walking or stranded, due to the regularity of that in my childhood. My dad was a mechanic.....go figure.

Ham said...

It's a funny old thing. In London, if you gave everyone who asked a coin (however small) you'd be a pauper after a half mile walk. Also, while some are just wasters, some are undoubtably down on luck. As I don't know how to tell the difference, I give to none. To be able to sleep nights, I end up with a monthly standing order to Shelter (which I think is one of the better charities).